The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New figures show surge in threat cases throughout American life

Federal law enforcement charged about 50 percent more threat cases during the past five years than the previous five-year period

Pittsburgh Police and paramedics respond to Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School for what turned out to be a hoax report of an active shooter, on March 29, 2023, in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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The wave of threats, hoaxes and harassment that is unnerving many Americans has helped boost the number of federal threat prosecutions by nearly 50 percent in the past five years compared with the previous five-year period, according to new data from the Justice Department.

Recently, high-profile threat cases — to judges, lawmakers and other elected officials — seem to happen on an almost daily basis. On Thursday, officials said a bomb threat was made against the home of the New York judge overseeing a civil trial against former president Donald Trump.

Cases like that attract the most attention, but less noted are what local authorities say is a growing torrent of threats to people who are not as well-known — in the form of emails, so-called swatting incidents and online comments threatening violence.

Officials say the new security environment is plagued by hoaxes and harassment that sap police resources, spread fear and increasingly disrupt all parts of American life, from government to schools, businesses and private homes.

Historically, responding to threats was primarily the responsibility of local law enforcement officials, because the perpetrators often lived close to their targets. But law enforcement officials say they increasingly see threats made electronically, spanning hundreds or thousands of miles. And some of the people making those threats are serial offenders, targeting a slew of places or people at a time. Those types of cases put greater demands on the FBI and federal prosecutors to handle them.

In 2014, for example, the Justice Department charged 159 defendants with some form of threat-related offense — and the figure stayed well below 200 for the next five years.

In 2019, however, the number of threat-related defendants spiked to 243, and it has stayed high; 242 people were charged federally in threat cases in 2022, according to Justice Department figures, and 222 were charged last year. Overall, the most recent five-year period saw the number of federally charged threat cases rise 47 percent compared with the preceding five-year period.

While these cases show the degree to which the Justice Department is devoting more resources to addressing threats of violence, federal prosecutions represent only a fraction of the overall problem, which extends far beyond politics, according to current and former law enforcement officials.

“It’s easy to think that the increase in threats is simply a product of the political climate, but in fact there are multiple reasons, and an increase in threats does not necessarily translate to an increase in danger,” said Katherine Schweit, a former FBI agent who wrote a book, “Stop the Killing,” about mass shootings.

“Right now, schools, hospitals and business are facing repetitive swatting call threats around the country,” Schweit said. Such threats are often “designed to harass, not to create danger. Sometimes it’s harassing someone for political or ideological reasons, and sometimes it’s a true threat, yet all of them end up on the same spreadsheet.”

Technology, Schweit said, has enabled miscreants to lob anonymous threats around the world, while social media has given such people “a wealth of targets.”

She noted it is relatively easy for people to go online and pay someone to swat a school district, a public figure or anyone they want to target, at any time.

And they are.

The FBI has been involved in investigating swatting attacks on more than 500 U.S. schools in late 2022 and 2023, The Washington Post reported last year.

A Cornell University student was charged with making threats against Jewish students on campus in November. Rusty Bowers, a former speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives who played a pivotal role in resisting efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, was targeted at his home east of Phoenix the day after Christmas. Bomb threats this month caused evacuations at state capitol buildings across the country, and federal authorities charged a man with threatening to kill a congressman and his children.

“It’s been a strange, strange development. We certainly are seeing more threats against schools and over the last 18 months or so, and it’s been the swatting issue that we’ve seen on the rise. That’s fairly new,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Now, said Canady, many threats will be delivered in batches, often 10 or 12 school districts at a time. The hoax threats made against schools will often claim there is an ongoing shooting at the school.

In a typical swatting incident, a call is made to 911 claiming that there is a shooting or hostage situation at a certain location, sometimes a home, sometimes a school or business. Police are trained to rush to the scene as quickly as possible to save lives. But swatting can have horrific consequences when people trying to save lives use deadly force.

In 2017, a young man was killed by police officers in a swatting incident in Wichita. Investigators determined that some teenagers got into an argument while playing a video game and got another person to make a fake emergency call about the address where they thought the person lived.

The swatting problem has grown much worse since that killing.

Increasingly, police departments are learning to try to phone ahead before squad cars arrive at a scene, in the hopes of speaking to someone there who can give them some indication of whether the threat is real or a hoax.

That can lower the danger for officers and everyone else, but police still need to see with their own eyes that no one is in danger, said Canady, and no one wants to mistakenly take their foot off the gas in a real crisis.

“It’s ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ because the last thing we want to do is hesitate or pause too much and people start losing their lives,” he said.

In a written statement, the FBI said investigating threats “has become a bigger responsibility in recent years as the volume of certain threats increases. As a country and organization, we have seen an increase in threats of violence targeting government officials and institutions, houses of worship, schools, and medical facilities, just to name a few. The FBI and our partners take all threats of violence seriously and responding to these threats ties up law enforcement resources.”

The agency said it will “continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators of these threats — real or hoax — and hold them accountable.”

Sometimes a flurry of threats is fueled by events in the news, such as the fighting in the Middle East, or developments in legal cases involving Trump. But there are many other types of threats, and officials say they are seeing increases across all sorts of categories.

While federal law enforcement agencies are sometimes best equipped to track down the perpetrators of threats that fly across the internet, state lines or international borders, there are legal and practical limits to what the Justice Department can do. Federal prosecutors, for example, do not charge juveniles. And federal law regarding threats is mostly geared toward prosecuting threats made against federal officers, employees or buildings, so some categories of victims are often not as easily prosecuted federally.

But even in that group, Attorney General Merrick Garland noted earlier this month a “deeply disturbing spike” in threats against government workers. He decried “a larger trend that has included threats of violence against those who administer elections, ensure our safe travel, teach our children, report the news, represent their constituents and keep our communities safe.”

“These threats of violence are unacceptable,” Garland said. “They threaten our fabric of democracy.”

The attorney general has vowed to “double down” on federal efforts to combat the problem, and has pressed law enforcement agencies to see what more can be done.